Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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The Drifters: Adrift on memories

The Drifters
The Drifters The Drifters The Drifters The Drifters

Having sold over 214 million singles and 114 million albums across the globe, veteran soul/pop outfit The Drifters are unquestionably one of the most successful vocal groups of all time. Meanwhile, this month sees the now-foursome’s 58th anniversary being celebrated with the release of a new 20-track compilation ‘Up On The Roof - The Very Best Of’. Which combines 18 of the group’s classic hits of the Sixties and Seventies with two new tracks recorded by its current line-up of vocalists - Maurice Cannon, Michael Williams, Damion Charles and Ryan King.

Initially formed in 1953 by vocalist Clyde McPhatter and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun under the management-cum-ownership of former jazz trumpeter George Treadwell, The Drifters quickly enjoyed their first taste of success with the US R&B chart-toppers ‘Money Honey’ and ‘Honey Love’. Which in turn significantly marked the beginning of a hit-making chart career that - despite McPhatter’s departure for a successful solo career in 1954 bringing an ongoing instability to the line-up - would impressively continue (alongside persistent and frequent membership changes!) for the next 24 years!

Indeed, with more than 60 vocalists having passed through their ranks, charismatic lead-singers to have featured in The Drifters line-up over the decades include (in addition to McPhatter) such legendary names as Bill Pinkney, Ben E. King, Johnny Moore, Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas - with the group arguably experiencing their “golden era” during the first half of the Sixties via such timeless, New York-recorded classic international hits as ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, ‘When My Little Girl Is Smiling’, ‘Up On The Roof’, ‘On Broadway’ and ‘Under The Boardwalk’. All of which - groundbreakingly for the time - combined hauntingly-memorable pop melodies and sophisticated orchestration with the group’s own gospel-influenced soul vocals.

Meanwhile, though the early death of the group’s long-serving manager/owner George Treadwell in 1967 may have pretty much ended The Drifters’ then-14-year unbroken US chart run, his widow Faye Treadwell’s shrewd decision to take over the reins and relocate to London would nevertheless lead to a significant second wind of British mainstream chart success. Which began in 1972, with the re-releases of three of the outfit’s Sixties US hits - ‘At The Club’, ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’ and ‘Come On Over To My Place’ - all attaining UK Top Ten placings. A feat which in turn led to the foursome (now fronted by Johnny Moore, who’d originally joined the line-up in 1955) in 1972 leaving their recording home of the previous 19 years - Atlantic Records - to sign with the Arista-affiliated Bell label. Resulting - from 1973 to 1977 - in an impressive, unbroken run of nine British-recorded UK hit singles, which included the enduring Top Five smashes ‘Kissin’ In The Back Row Of The Movies’, ‘There Goes My First Love’ and ‘You’re More Than A Number In My Little Red Book’.

With the late Seventies seeing the hits eventually drying up, frequent membership changes continued to plague the still-British-based group throughout the Eighties and Nineties, despite The Drifters having prestigiously been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988. Nevertheless, 2003 saw The Drifters return to the UK album Top Ten, with the release of the group’s Gold-selling, 50th-anniversary compilation ‘The Definitive Drifters’. The enduring success of which was ultimately followed by George & Faye Treadwell’s daughter Tina Treadwell in 2008 legally taking back control of The Drifters name and franchise - following a much-publicised court battle against a management company called Drifters UK Limited, which had apparently been started in the early 2000’s by two of Faye Treadwell’s former employees.

… All of which ultimately now brings us to a chatty Michael Williams of the group’s aforementioned, current four-man line up (which is today officially the only legitimate Drifters line-up in the world) chatting to ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis about such interesting topics as the group’s UK Top 20 new compilation LP, current UK tour, plus their many’n’varied upcoming plans.

The Drifters’ new compilation LP ‘Up On The Roof - The Very Best Of’

“Well, Sony Music - to actually mark the 58th year of The Drifters still going strong and being as popular as ever - decided to release an ALBUM. Which - when we first found out it was going to happen - was very exciting for us, because it was totally UNEXPECTED! And it’s basically another Greatest Hits collection, which includes all the great classics - ‘Under The Boardwalk’, ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’, ‘Kissin’ In The Back Row’ - in addition to one or two songs that people have maybe forgotten about, like ‘I Count The Tears’ and ‘Every Nite’s A Saturday Night’. Plus it also features two songs that this CURRENT line-up have recorded as Bonus Tracks... So yeah, it all makes it a very exciting time for The Drifters right now!”

The album’s two new Bonus Tracks (‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘Do You Dream Of Me’), which have been recorded by The Drifters’ current line-up

“When we first found out we were gonna record the U2 track ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, we were like ‘How the hell is THIS gonna work? How are we gonna put our mark on THIS one?’!... But then our producer basically told us that he was gonna slow it right down and give it a whole new gospel feel, so that we could really get creative with our harmonies And, once we had a listen to what he’d produced, we just got a feel for it right away! So we went in the studio and just recorded it in an old-fashioned style - you know, four guys around one microphone - and straightaway the harmonies just started ringing out! So for it now to be a part of this new album is a great thrill for us…. Then the second new track - ‘Do You Dream Of Me’ - was actually written by a couple of American songwriters. And again, as soon as we listened to it, we just immediately fell in LOVE with it! So of course it didn’t take much persuading for us to go into the studio to RECORD it - and we’re very proud of the finished product.”

The group’s current, extensive UK tour

“Well, it is 70 dates! So it’s a long haul, and it’s hard WORK! But having said that, it’s not anything that we haven’t done BEFORE!... And so for us, being able to step out on-stage and perform these great songs and be part of such a legendary legacy is an absolute JOY! I mean, we’ve actually named this tour ‘The Icons Tour’. Because it actually features a musical reincarnation of some of the group’s early doo wop classics such as ‘Fools Fall In Love’ and ‘Let The Boogie Woogie Roll’, in addition to songs like ‘I’ve Got Sand In My Shoes’, ‘You’re More Than A Number In My Little Red Book’, ‘Up On The Roof’, ‘Come On Over To My Place’... You know, it kinda concentrates on songs that featured the lead-vocals of Drifters icons like Ben E. King, Rudy Lewis, Johnny Moore, Bill Fredericks, Clyde McPhatter... And so in that way it represents a fitting tribute to those guys that have gone before us by showcasing what they brought to the table... So yeah, expect a high-energy concert that’s gonna be a whole lotta FUN!”

Michael’s own early background

“I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Where, with my parents being big church-goers, as kids we all sang in church and loved gospel music. You know, just like a lot of the early Drifters guys like Clyde McPhatter and Rudy Lewis, that gospel feel was something I grew up with very early on. And with my parents being singers as well, right through High School I always knew that I wanted to be involved in music. So as soon as I graduated, I basically travelled to New York to try and find me a foothold in the music business. Which is when I eventually ended up putting together a band of my OWN. You know, we’d go out and perform a lot of Motown stuff like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye… Who were both guys that had influenced me in a big way while I was growing up.”

How he came to join The Drifters

“Well, as I said, I‘d known from very early on that I wanted to sing and entertain. And it was actually while I was doing a show with my band at one of the bars in New York that I got spotted by Tina Treadwell! You know, I didn’t even know she was THERE! So, when she actually approached me after my gig and asked me if I wanted to be an understudy with The Drifters, I thought ‘This woman is CRAZY!’!... You know, you just don’t GET asked questions like that every day! So I was looking at the other guys thinking ‘Is this some kind of JOKE? Is she trying to wind me UP here?’!… But then, when I asked around, people were like ‘Yes, that is definitely Tina Treadwell!’... So we sat and had a talk, and I was like ‘Yeah of COURSE! I’d LOVE to be an understudy for The Drifters!’... So from there I spent about a year as an understudy until - around four-and-half years ago - I finally got my chance to become a fully-fledged MEMBER! And I haven’t looked back SINCE!”

The Drifters’ current line-up

“Maurice Cannon is the one we call ‘the real gentleman of the group’, and he’s the one who’s actually been in the line-up the longest. You know, when he first got into The Drifters, Tina Treadwell actually said his vocal style reminded her of Ben E. King! Plus he also has a bass voice that can go really deep. Which means he gives us a lot of the bottom harmonies, and the stability you need when you’re BUILDING your harmonies. Then our newest member - Ryan King - has a kind of baritone/tenor-type voice. And, because he’s always getting up to no good backstage, we like to call him ‘the cheeky chappie of the group’! Then we also have Damion Charles, who has a very sweet tenor/falsetto voice. He was actually first spotted singing in church by Tina Treadwell, And, with him being from London and the only English guy in the group, a lot of the British fans have a great affinity with him... And then of course there’s MYSELF - Michael Williams - who’s been in the group for four-and-a-half years and sings tenor.”

The current foursome’s experiences as a group so far

“In terms of our experiences so far, I’d say it’s been very much an up-and-down rollercoaster of a ride. In that, while we have had our trials tying to get various fake Drifters line-ups out the way and stuff like that, it’s also been a great personal thrill to be involved in - and become part of the history of - such a legendary group.”

Michael’s ideas on the numerous “bogus” Drifters groups that have plagued the current line-up over the last few years

“While many of them have now disappeared, we are still finding one or two of these bogus groups that are still going strong - especially here in the UK and in America. Like there are a couple of line-ups existing in The States right now that we’re trying to sue. And so, with a lotta these guys actually getting some pretty high-profile gigs, we are urging everybody - if you are going to a Drifters concert, or you’re hiring The Drifters or booking The Drifters - to really check out exactly which group you’re hoping to SEE! Because if it’s not the Treadwell Drifters, then it’s not the real DEAL! I mean, when I first joined the line-up, PMG - who handle the day-to-day running of The Drifters now - were actually going through a court battle with a guy by the name of Philip. Because he’d actually worked with The Drifters as road-manager during the Seventies and had since put together a group he was calling ‘The Drifters’ who were doing gigs here in the UK! So of course we had to chase THEM out - and sadly, to be honest, I don’t see the problem ever completely going AWAY! Which is very unfortunate for a lot of the fans who pay money to see a great show from the real Drifters, and end up actually watching some FAKE group! It really is very unfair!”

Plans for an upcoming Drifters stage-show in London’s West End

“We’re basically trying to put a West End stage-show together depicting the life and times of the Drifters. We’re intending to go right back to the group’s early roots - you know, when Clyde McPhatter was originally approached by Ahmet Ertegun and George Treadwell to put a group together - and then re-enact some of the great stories over the years that we’ve all heard about. Like the situation when Ben E. King first joined in1958, which was very interesting. In that The Drifters line-up at the time were due to play a show at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. But then, when they all turned up so drunk that they didn’t know what they were doing, George Treadwell was so angry that he fired the whole lot of them and went across the street and asked a group called The Five Crowns if they wanted to become The Drifters INSTEAD! They then said yes, and within that line-up was a very young, 20-year-old Ben E. King!... So yeah, we’re working to combine stories like that with all those great Drifters hits - and hopefully it’s all gonna come OFF! Right now we’re trying to get a couple of writers on board that can help us really get the show on the road, and then we’re hoping to feature some really talented, professional actors and singers to play the roles of those great characters like Johnny Moore, Clyde McPhatter, Bill Fredericks, Ben E. King, and Rudy Lewis.”

Upcoming plans for The Drifters to perform at Las Vegas

“Oh yeah, that’s DEFINITELY gonna happen! We’re currently talking about going later this year - or if not, then definitely NEXT year… But you know, with us being in such high demand right now - particularly in Europe, as well as here in the UK - we are for the time being trying our best to get to a lot of these places to at least put in an appearance. Because to us it is very important that we do try to please our fans EVERYWHERE... But yeah, once this year’s touring is done, Vegas is a DEFINITE!”

The group’s day-to day relationship with ongoing Drifters owners/figureheads the Treadwell family

“Well, management-wise a lot of the day-to-day running and handling of the Drifters’ affairs is actually today handled by PMG - Prism Music Group - which is a UK-based company. But with the Treadwell family being like figureheads again now, every so often Tina Treadwell will fly over to wherever we are in the world to see us. Or if we’re in The States we’ll obviously meet up with her, let her know what’s going on, she’ll make a couple of TV appearances with us… So yeah, though we don’t get to see her on a day-to-day basis, nevertheless she’s always there or thereabouts - and no major decision is ever made without the Treadwell family’s say-so.”

The current line-up’s relationship with some of the earlier Drifters members

“Well, we’ve actually had some great times with Butch Leake - who recorded on ‘There Goes My First Love’ and ‘Kissin’ In The Back Row Of The Movies’ - and Joe Blunt, who recorded on ‘You’re More Than A Number In My Little Red Book’. Plus we’ve also met up with Bobby Hendricks, one of the earliest Drifters who’s still alive TODAY - you know, he recorded on songs like ‘Drip Drop’ back in the late-Fifties. Because what happened was, we all got together to do a show at the O2 Arena in London last year, in which Joe Blunt and Butch Leake got a Lifetime Achievement Award from Sony Music. Which, in addition to being absolutely fantastic for THEM, also kind of brought a tear to MY eye! Because a lot of those guys that had such great hits with The Drifters back in the Sixties and Seventies had never really got the recognition they deserved from the industry... And so what we’re actually looking to do right now is to put together a big show that’s gonna feature the CURRENT Drifters line-up, plus a Drifters LEGENDS line-up that will be made up of four guys that sang with The Drifters back in the Seventies and Sixties! Which will be a fantastic thrill for us, as well as for the fans who remember a lot of those guys when they were in the line-up doing their thing... So yeah, that’s something VERY exciting that we’re in the process of putting together right now.”

Plans for the current Drifters line-up to record new material

“We’re actually in the process of getting some new songs together right now, and in fact we’ll be going into the studio next week to start recording the first three! You know, a lot of the songs we’ve already chosen we just fell in love with straightaway. So we’re really looking to work hard on them, so we can give them that classic Drifters feel... And hopefully the new album we’re working on will be released either later on this year - around maybe November/December - or early the NEXT.”

The Drifters’ UK tour runs from April 15 through to September 9. Dates include Northwich, Memorial Hall (April 15); Swindon, Wyveryn Theatre (June 9); Hull, City Hall (June 30); Bristol, Hippodrome (July 24); and Croydon, Fairfield Halls (July 29). More information from

The album ‘Up On The Roof - The Very Best Of’ is out now through Sony Music/Rhino

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